A Completely Surreal Icelandic Musical Has One of the Best Soundtracks of the Year
Throughout history, musicals have come with some pretty outrageous premises. But it's safe to say that none before Revolution In The Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter -- a rock musical written by a little-known, reclusive Icelandic songwriter -- involved a political struggle and a love triangle taking place in a Horton Hears a Who-like world on the elbow of a furniture painter.
Photos David Burlacu Several Icelandic artists gathered at Rockwood Music Hall on July 15 to perform songs from Revolution In The Elbow
Perhaps the most interesting twist is the fact that said musical, which begins performances at the Minetta Lane Theater on the 31st and officially opens on August 13th, has attracted the talents of two Tony winners -- star Cady Huffman (The Producers, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Iron Chef) and lighting director Jeff Croiter (Peter and the Starcatcher) -- along with actors Kate Shindle, Patrick Boll and Brad Nacht; veteran West End choreographer Lee Proud (Billy Elliot, Carousel, Hairspray); and costume design from longtime Bjork collaborators Hrafnhildur Arnardottir (aka Shoplifter) and Edda Gudmundsdottir.
One could be forgiven for wondering how such talent was attracted to such an unusual story -- which, to make it even odder, takes place against the backdrop of a once-idyllic community's false prosperity, ultimate ruin and rebirth at the hands of a power-mad mayor, a scenario clearly influenced by Iceland's devastating financial crisis of 2008. And also, what could give the producers the confidence to launch such an unusual show in the theater capital of the world?
The answer, according to nearly all involved, is the music, which has a rare maturity and depth, especially for someone who is basically a completely unknown writer. The soundtrack, recently released on Mother West Records, stands on its own as an album, with or without the story line.
"The music is very sensual and powerful and emotive," says Proud, who has worked in theater for most of his career but also fronted a band called the Proud Ones in the '90s (which opened a show for David Bowie when original opener Morrissey fell ill). "It has this kind of tragicomic feel which is very human, and brings out very human emotions."
"Singing it makes me feel like a rock star," Huffman says.
The songs were written over the past few years by Ívar Páll Jónsson, and contain elements of Radiohead, David Bowie, Grizzly Bear, the Flaming Lips, Sufjan Stevens and many others -- but they also maintain a musical's sensibility, narrative and ensemble performances. There are soaring, anthemic moments, pop songs, acoustic numbers and fully-fledged arrangements, performed on album by a crack Icelandic band with guest vocalists Liam McCormick (The Family Crest), Hjalti Þorkelsson (Múgsefjun), Sigríður Thorlacius (Hjaltalín) and others -- and, for the show, by a band assembled by Magnetic Fields collaborator Charles Newman.
Jónsson fronted a band called Blome in the 1990s, releasing one album and performing one gig before "I decided being a frontman isn't for me," he says. "I'm more of an introverted personality." He worked as a journalist in the following years while writing "thousands of songs," he says, before he awoke one morning in 2011 "at 4 a.m. and started writing, and here we are."
Well, not quite. Jónsson's younger brother Gulli pushed the project along and rallied forces. He enlisted a friend of a friend named Karl Pétur Jónsson (no direct relation; seemingly everyone in Iceland knows each other and/or is related), who helped bring in director Bergur Þór Ingólfsson, who'd directed *Mary Poppins* -- the most well-attended and highest-grossing Icelandic musical of all time -- which had been choreographed by Proud. Karl, who came from a corporate-PR background but ran an Icelandic theater company for several years, was originally a consultant but, with Theater Mogul, has become the show's producer.
As if such a show didn't already face enough challenges, there was the matter of where to open it. In Iceland, the potential audience for anything, let alone an offbeat rock musical, is only so big: according to Statistics Iceland, the country's entire population at the end of June was 327,050. The production of "Mary Poppins" that included Ingólfsson and Proud ran for a year and was, numerically anyway, seen by one-fifth of the country's entire population -- but do the math on that.